'Lifetime skills guarantee' won't make up for mass unemployment

New lifelong learning package ‘will not give workers skills and support they need’ amid crisis

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Prime minister Boris Johnson’s plans for expanding vocational training announced today (September 29) will not reverse the impact of skyrocketing levels of unemployment on the horizon amid the current crisis, Unite and other critics have warned.

At a time when more than a million jobs hang in the balance, after chancellor Rishi Sunak put forward a short-time working scheme that experts have warned will fail to stave off mass job losses, the prime minister gave a characteristically upbeat speech about ending the “pointless nonsensical gulf that’s been fixed for more than 100 years between the so-called academic and so-called practical side of education”.

Johnson unveiled a new policy where from next April, every adult without an A-level or equivalent qualification will be able to avail themselves of a fully-funded college course for free, paid through the National Skills Fund, which, as critics have pointed out, was already announced in the March budget.

Previously, the government only funded an A-level equivalent qualification for those up to the age of 23, but with today’s new policy, people of all ages can take courses that are deemed to be valuable by employers, with the government saying it will announce details of these courses in the coming weeks.

Alongside this ‘Lifetime Skills Guarantee’, higher education loans will also be made more flexible for both young people and adults so that they can space out study over their lifetimes and take vocational courses in further education colleges or universities.

Announcing the new measures, Johnson said in his speech today, “As the Chancellor has said, we cannot, alas, save every job. What we can do is give people the skills to find and create new and better jobs.

“So my message today is that at every stage of your life, this government will help you get the skills you need.”

While many welcomed the lifelong learning package announced today amid the biggest economic crisis in generations, critics warned that with funding not available until April, it may be too little, too late for the legions of workers who have been left jobless for months.

It has also been noted that none of the new measures are funded by new money, and that people being given more ‘flexibility’ on student loans will mean little to households which simply cannot afford to take on any more debt.

Commenting, shadow education secretary Kate Green said, “A week ago Labour called for a national retraining strategy fit for the crisis Britain faces, but what the government proposes is simply a mix of reheated old policies and funding that won’t be available until April.

“By then many workers could have been out of work for nearly a year, and the Tories still think that they will need to take out loans to get the training they will need to get back in work,” she added.

“These measures will not reverse the devastating impact of a decade of cuts, and will not give workers the skills and support they need in the months ahead.”

In its press release outlining the new lifelong learning package, the government noted that “apprenticeship opportunities will also be increased, with more funding for SMEs taking on apprentices, and greater flexibility in how their training is structured”.

But notably missing from either the prime minister’s speech or the government’s document outlining the new learning package was any mention of the apprenticeship levy, which has been beset with problems since its inception.

As Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner noted earlier this summer, “[The apprenticeship levy] isn’t working, certainly not for young workers, so fix it. Vast sums of cash are standing idle in the Treasury, with employers seeing it as a tax, unable to access it to fund recognised apprenticeships for either their workforces or those of their supply chain partners.

“For all this fanfare about kickstarting the economy with jobs for the young, so much more could be achieved by simply putting the billions of pounds currently sitting there doing nothing to good use,” he noted. “Use it to create ‘down time’, upskilling the current workforce while bringing tens of thousands of new apprenticeships forward. The trouble is, of course, that business sees the apprenticeship levy as a tax on employers. The government treats it like one, too, rather than as an opportunity to develop the highly skilled workforce that this country desperately needs to build back better and meet the challenges of the future.”

Johnson’s speech was later overshadowed in a press Q&A session afterwards, when the prime minister failed to give an explanation of new lockdown measures now coming into force in the North East. When asked by a journalist whether it was permissible for people from different households to meet in a pub garden under the new restrictions, he could not give a clear answer.

Lambasting the prime minister for not knowing details of local lockdowns that his own government has imposed, deputy Labour party leader Angela Rayner said, “For the Prime Minister to not understand his own rules is grossly incompetent.

“These new restrictions are due to come into force across huge parts of the country tonight. The government needs to get a grip.”

By Hajera Blagg

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